Sunday, 28 March 2010

Notes on the Old Town, Bucharest

I hate the new old town. Friends dropped in last night and we walked down Smardan and had a good meal in one of the dozens and dozens of places whose names I don't know that have opened in the last year or so in place of hardware shops and locksmiths. Yes it adds a fair bit to the sum of human happiness. Yes it was inevitable. Yes it is very convenient to me to suddenly find myself living in the midst of trendy bars and restaurants. But I hate it. These old towns come by lorry are invented somewhere else by design companies and they all look the same whether it is Belfast or Havana or Minsk. Yes Minsk has all this stuff too. The same bars the same restaurants the same old same old. You don’t even need tourists. Belfast and Bucharest don’t get many and Minsk, well. Their old towns cater for the people who live in the real town to which the old town has become a pendent.
But when I came to live in the old town eleven years ago Bucharest was the only capital city in Europe whose old town was a slum. I was fortunate to have found the street to suit the morbid taste I share with quite a number of foreigners who like Eastern Europe for squalour and broken things. The local people quite rightly do not share it. The next street even in that distant era had – something then quite outlandish in Bucharest in 2000 – a Belgian chocolate shop. And round the corner 400 yards away stod the National Bank a gleaming white battleship overshadowing the crooked and ill-slated houses. But my little street was satisfyingly riven by potholes and lined with shabby shops and tenements filled with illegal gypsies. As Bucharest changed, as malls darkened the land and nobody any more shopped in the market or the corner grocery shop the alimentar I the unmarried Englishman continued to buy my supercristal toothpaste from Vasile whose shop doubled as a bar or from the shop across the street where Radu played backgammon and drank tuica with his customers who seemed to be a kind of surrogate family. People even three years ago were asking me how I could bear to live here. One Englishman whose intelligence I respect though not his taste said the place depressed him.

The first thing to say about the old town in Bucharest is that is not very old at all. Most of it is built after 1850 and is about thirty years older than the rest of the so-called historic centre. All that is truly old in the old town are the labyrinthine street plan (after ten years living in this postage stamp I still get lost), three beautiful churches built in the 16th 17th and 18th centuries respectively, two Turkish hans from the early 19th century, two or three other Ottoman wooden buildings and the Curtea Veche, the old court. The Curtea Veche is incontrovertibly old. It is the ground floor of the palace built of terracotta brick by Vlad III himself - the Impaler ! Dracula! -in the 15th century. Fallen into disrepair and disrepute it disappeared under other buildings as the ground level rose and was brought to light when a row of shops on the site was demolished in the 1950s. It stands to this day without postcard shops or guide book stalls a puzzle of diverse busts tombstones and architraves littering the paved surface as if in a surrealist painting but passing it today I saw some tents and painted wooden wagons that spoke obscurely of history as bloodless entertainment industry. The curator who is a mine of information speaks no English which is reassuring. A downward flight of stairs into the basement level takes you into some eery tableau from Eugene Sue’s Le Juif Errant or the Phantom of the Opera, a vast brick catacomb shadowy and chilly on the hottest day. Michael Wharton once expressed the hopeless wish when a fragment of Roman road was discovered at York that it should be left enigmatic unexplained and unsignposted among the Edwardian terraced villas . Michael Wharton staunch reactionary, hater of the modern world and of progress, would have loved the old town in Bucharest until the last four year have brought in many things he loathed: worst of all, people employed to wear historical costumes,

Bucharest as Bucuresteni often remind themselves was once called the Little Paris. [Bucuresteni prefer to forget the alternative the Paris of the East, a title Bucharest shared with Budapest, Smyrna, Beirut,Antananarivo and Hanoi. Romanians do not want to think of themselves as Eastern even though they quote Raymond Poincare’s remark that in Romania ‘we are at the gates of the orient where everything happens at a slow pace’.]But two cnturies before Bucharest was the little Paris it was a little Phanar. The Phanar, meaning lighthouse, is the Greek district clustered around the little steepleless flat-roofed Patriarchal church in Constantinople where were crowned the unloved and venal Phanariot princes of Wallachia and Moldavia, Greek Christian subjects of the Sublime Porte who purchased their thrones for short uncertain reigns in which they endeavoured to make a profit on their investment before inevitably losing the favour of the Sultan. Visitors to Istanbul don’t usually make it to the Phanar. Since the 50s when most of the Greeks in the city were ‘encouraged’ to leave Turkey it has lost its Greek ambience and since the area was tidied up and much it demolished in the 70s it has lost most of what remained of its character but entering the patriarchal church one feels that one had left Istanbul and passed into Constantinople.

Strada Lipscani which runs through the tiny old town is Bucharest’s despised run-to-seed spiritual centre. through six centuries antedating even the Impaler it has retained its inimitable, profoundly disreputable character, despite earthquakes fires invasions bombs Marxism-Leninism but this very year all that will cease. When the glacial process of replacing the original asphalt with an ugly and sub-standard pedestrian level surface is complete and after four year businesses can return to the street they will be the new kind of ersatz business, antique shops and their ilk and it will be the end of an old song.

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